Leadership is knowledge

When it comes to school leadership, what you need is knowledge. Yes, you’ve got to do something with that knowledge, but acting without knowledge is foolhardy… damaging… even dangerous. If this sounds obvious then please tell me why we spend so much time concerning ourselves about generic leadership skills? Why is leadership training full of sessions on ‘change management’, ‘communication’ and ‘how to motivate’? Why is the literature on school leadership focused on such whimsy as ‘developing a vision’ and ’empowering staff’? Without knowledge of the domain in which you practice these are vacuous notions; each ‘skill’ a hollow shell.

The acorn from which my thoughts on this have grown was this article in the Harvard Business Review (featured by @TeacherTap a while back) followed by this blog by Ollie Knight. The HBR article makes a simple argument for leaders to focus on more authentic aspects of how they do their jobs, rather than worry about abstract competencies. This extract sums it up:

Leaders want to get better in the here-and-now, not to be judged against a competency map or be sold an abstract theory about what leadership should look like. If you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context — understand your organization’s social system — and mind your routines. Leadership development is more about application than theory.

What strikes me as relevant for school leaders about this argument is the acknowledgement that organisations have varying and unique social systems, and failing to understand the context within which you work will lead to ineffectiveness. In other words, knowing how to do something in general terms is not possible; the ‘how to’ is particular to the context of your organisation.

The article goes on to outline how the author’s own organisation identified six context-specific routines which ‘when executed well, appeared to differentiated the highest performing supervisors from average performing ones’.

Let’s take an example. In the school which I lead, we (by which I mean senior leaders) have evolved an approach to challenging unkempt students as they walk between lessons. I haven’t said this out loud, but in my mind I’ve been calling it ‘Stop and shirts’. I know, but there it is.

I first observed my Deputy Head do this when he started at the school, adopted a version of it myself and the habit seems to have spread. My version goes like this…

A student is walking towards you with their shirt hanging out. As they near, you call them over. The other students carry on walking and you have isolated the student from any peer influence. ‘Good morning’, you say. ‘How was your weekend?’ This is a disarming tactic. They answer along the lines of ‘Okay, thank you’. They may even ask ‘How was yours, sir?’ This exchange is followed by a direct request for them to tuck their shirt in. They usually apologise and start to do it as they walk off. You ask them to stop and stand still until it is tucked in. This is mildly humiliating. As they complete the task you have the opportunity to reinforce the reasons for your request, perhaps by saying ‘It is really important to me that you look smart, because it shows you mean business. Also, you are a role model to those younger students walking past.’ Another mumbled apology. ‘Okay, off you go. I hope you have a good lesson’.

Firstly, this approach works. After a short time we found that almost every shirt was tucked in as students walked between lessons. Furthermore, as this routine became consistently applied by just a few senior leaders, students would anticipate what was about to happen and start tucking their shirt in as they walked towards the member of staff. Still we stop them, have that polite but clear reminder of expectations and send them on their way.

However, when I say that this approach works, I mean that it has worked in our school. The effectiveness of the routine is context-dependent. The particular features of our school culture and circumstances which make this approach appropriate and effective are:

  • our students generally follow rules and instructions – rule breaking is the exception
  • relations between students and staff are mutually respectful
  • most of our students would walk on when their friend is called over, rather than stop to enjoy the confrontation
  • we are a small school with high senior leader presence, so there is a good chance of being caught twice by the same senior leader if the shirt gets pulled back out (meaning an escalation of sanctions)
  • the senior team share a quiet and assertive approach to disciplining students

The knowledge which underpins effective action in this example, and in the HBR article, is knowledge of the social context. More specifically it is knowledge of what will work in the social context; this includes understanding the school culture, knowing what students will expect and how they will respond. It is even knowing individual students, recognising which will need a firmer hand or which will be flouting the rules inadvertently and will be mortified to be challenged.

In Ollie Knight’s blog, he makes the connection between the criticism of generic leadership competencies in the HBR article and the debate in education about teaching generic skills to students, like problem solving. His contention is that if we accept that skills are rarely, if ever, transferable but instead are rooted in a specific subject domain, then should we not also accept that leadership is also domain-specific? He puts it thus…

My hunch then is that it seems that hand in hand with the development and rise of genericist curriculum ideas came the growth in genericist leadership ideas in schools. Just as for a curriculum that foregrounds generic skills; subject information is simply the landscape within which to practice those skills, so in a generic leadership model the school is simply the arena in which to act out leadership skills or actions. Limited domain knowledge is required due to the mistaken belief that leadership is transferable and good leaders have a framework to follow. If I can switch between being ‘visionary’ or ‘directive’ based on my audience then I will be an effective leader. Thus knowledge of leadership models transcends knowledge of the domain within which I am operating. Although I don’t have any evidence to support this claim my thinking is that just as ‘skills’ don’t cross disciplinary thresholds, nor then, does leadership.

The consequence, Knight argues, of the growth in ‘genericist leadership ideas’ in schools is a series of management approaches which are underpinned by a belief that leaders can collect abstract data and apply one-size-fits-all frameworks to ‘lead’ the school. This is evident in approaches to progress data collection, lesson observation, performance management, marking policies, CPD, book scrutiny… the list goes on. As leaders are encouraged to believe that they can apply their generic leadership competencies flexibly within different schools and scenarios, so to do they believe that management systems can be imported, imposed and universally applied.

There are two different, but related, ideas here which we need to be careful not to conflate, but which are both valid in my view and relate to the critique of genericism in school leadership. The first is the observation that leadership capability is social-context-specific i.e. generic leadership skills cannot just be acquired and applied across different organisations. We may think of this as leadership within a social domain. Secondly, the idea that leadership and management practices within schools must pay due regard to the subject-domains which the policies and practices impact upon. In other words, we should not attempt to apply generic leadership competencies without regard to the social context of the school, and neither should we do so without regard to the inherent differences of between subject domains where leadership seeks to influence teaching and learning. Both these ideas share the notion that leadership must draw significantly on domain knowledge; knowledge of the social and pedagogical context.

If we follow the branch of this idea relating to pedagogy, the work of Christine Counsell is relevant and illuminating. In this blog, Counsell argues convincingly and eloquently that senior leadership of the curriculum is incredibly difficult as the curriculum itself is ‘fiendishly complex’. As a result, she argues, many attempts by senior leaders to develop curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment fail as they pay little regard to the nuance, distinctiveness and traditions of each subject domain.

Where SLTs have tried to reach into pedagogy with generic strategies that fail to attend to subject distinctiveness, all manner of distortions have occurred. In tackling the ‘how’ (teaching and learning) and in attempting to judge its efficacy (progress, assessment, data, outcomes), if we ignore ‘what?’ is being learned, we risk damaging so much else that school leadership and management ought to foster.

Counsell’s blog posts on this subject are very worthy of your time. I will not attempt to replicate her narrative here as I am unlikely to do it justice, but her contention (above) chimes with the idea that generic leadership approaches in schools are unlikely to be successful. In particular, it is hard to defend many of the common accountability mechanisms employed by schools (lesson observations, work sampling, data scrutiny) and continue to believe that they have validity and worth if you even partially accept Counsell’s views on curriculum complexity.

The trail leads us back again to knowledge. School leaders must acquire and act in accordance with a deep knowledge of the social context within which they work. They must also seek to acquire some understanding of the ‘fiendishly complex’ curriculum and ensure improvement strategies are grounded in specifics of subject practice.

I would contend there is another form of declarative knowledge which senior leaders must also master, which is the domain of technical knowledge in the field of education. This includes a vast array of statutory requirements, government ‘advice’, standards, established procedures and received wisdom. Without a firm grasp of this domain of knowledge, leadership actions will likely be flawed. A good example of this is familiarity with the School Teachers Pay and Conditions (STPC). The STPC document, revised each year, is a key reference point for matters of pay and working conditions for teaching staff. In the fourteen years I have worked in school leadership teams, this document has proved invaluable, particularly in resolving disputes. Discussions which so often may have dissolved into subjective disagreement over what a member of staff should or should not be required to do can be diffused with reference to an objective statement of expectations. This document, and knowledge of what it contains, enables the leader to de-personalise the dispute and demonstrate consistency in expectations of staff. The key to managing such difficult discussions is not some generic ‘persuasive skill’ possessed by the leader, or a general ability they possess to negotiate compromise, but a sound knowledge of what is required, expected and reasonable, and where to evidence this. That is not to say that persuasion and negotiation are not required, but that these are hollow skills without the possession of the necessary declarative knowledge. We cannot transfer such skills from other contexts because this context is different; it requires a grounding in a different domain of knowledge. We may, however, become expert in these skills within similar contexts. As we experience negotiating our way through more disputes about pay and working conditions we can deepen our knowledge of this area and refine our application of this knowledge in reaching resolution.

This example takes us back to the business in the HBR article which identified ‘six context-specific routines which when executed well, appeared to differentiated the highest performing supervisors from average performing ones’. These routines are specific to the social context of the organisation and also require the leader to draw upon a strong declarative knowledge base. It should also be possible to identify such leadership routines in our schools.

Also drawing on the HBR article and Knight’s blog, Steve Adcock attempts to list six core routines for school leaders in this blog, aptly titled ‘The specific things that leaders do‘.

These are:

  • Managing a meeting
  • Taking an assembly
  • Doing a learning walk
  • Holding a developmental conversation with a teacher
  • Holding a difficult conversation with a pupil/parent
  • Line managing a senior/middle leader.

This list is a good start. Adcock calls for the profession to codify the specific things that school leaders do, in the same way that Doug Lemov has done for teachers. In the blog, there is a great example of how this might look in relation to managing a difficult meeting with a parent. What is striking about the example is that the experienced headteacher giving the advice to the author has an established routine for ‘similar situations’ which is quite simple and has proven effective. The leader can draw on this tried and tested approach when confronted with circumstances with look similar to past experiences. However, whilst the advice appears sound, we must remember that this routine was built up in a specific school context. It may be that the routine broadly works if the social context is similar, but it is likely that the leader will need to consider how such an approach is likely to play out in their school, with these particular parents. Over time, this less-experienced leader will develop their own establish routine and the confidence and expertise to vary this approach in response to what they know about the specific context they face.

Having dismissed the notion that there are no generic leadership competencies which exist independent of context, I am left questioning whether there is worth in generic leadership routines which we can specify and codify in the way Adcock suggests. I think there probably is to the extent that there are common things leaders do across a variety of school contexts. However, taking an assembly in one school might look quite different to taking an assembly in another. I suspect, therefore, that greater merit lies in individual schools seeking to make explicit the leadership routines which are shown to work in their specific context. In doing so, we are setting out the mechanisms by which we create the culture of the organisation, and turning the organisation’s values in to the norms of behaviour. Routines are the leaders’ tools for improving the organisation; the ‘specific things that leaders do’ are critical to school development.

How to lead a school?  It would appear that we need to acquire knowledge of how to run this school, not schools in general. This knowledge is both declarative (firm technical knowledge, understanding of the social context and insight in to the complexities of the curriculum) and procedural (knowledge of the routines and behaviours which are effective within the specific context in which we work). Responsible leaders seek to arm themselves with knowledge, not empty skills. Those responsible for leadership development must recognise this and stop endorsing the view that we can acquire permanent expertise in generic leadership traits. Leadership expertise is domain-specific and without deep knowledge of the context and the complexity of the organisations we lead we will do more harm than good.

9 thoughts on “Leadership is knowledge

  1. I Used to want be a headteacher and lead a school myself. I have now decided I was only chasing that dream as it had been perputuated by school training and slt as the inevitable journey through school career development. It is the outcome of progression and almost reward if you will. I have now shunned all notions of this and I have analysed the reasons as to why I wanted it in the first place. My intentions are noble but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The overall questions I kept asking are ; what is wrong with what I do now? And why are people on slt now and how do they differ from me? The answers I have come to are this; they are in slt postions either through opportunity or through qualities I do not possess. True leadership is understanding that sometimes the culture won’t allow your style to thrive and thus you remove your self from the game until it will.


    1. I see many people with the wrong attitude and motivations get to senior levels in schools, and many people I think would suit the role decide not to move up. It is a pity that people get put off giving it a go. We are not born with leadership ‘qualities’ and the required characteristics are not woven in to our personality. Leadership is what we do and can be learnt. A willingness to try and to adapt are the prerequisites. There are multiple ways you can be good at this. All that said, I have developed increasing respect over the years for those that don’t push on up and stick with a role that they work on and become extremely expert in. Life-long teachers and middle leaders deserve great respect (perhaps more so than us control-freaks at the top).


  2. Sorry that I’ve only just caught up with your blog posts, Matthew – don’t know how I missed them! I’m finding them interesting and useful. I did read the Steve Adcock post, and commented on it. I absolutely accept your arguments, but also believe that we can (and definitely have to) begin to prepare leaders at all levels BEFORE they know the specific context within which they will be leading.

    They will, crucially, continue their learning (and never really complete it) by doing the job, what Robert Quinn (2004) called ‘building the bridge as we walk on it’. We can only fully understand the nuances of a specific context when we are in it, but that isn’t where we begin our learning. It’s not unlike how we train teachers – there is a place for considering the skills all teachers need and how we can start to develop them, but the learning really begins when you are teaching a specific subject, or range of subjects, in a specific school. I think we may all remember how much we learnt on teaching practice, but that didn’t mean that the preparatory work we did in college was irrelevant. Sometimes its relevance only became apparent when we started to do the job.

    It would be good to have a conversation with you about all this sometime.


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